Film links native languages with human nature

Language lesson
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  October 6, 2010

TALKING WITH THE ELDERS Jessie Littledoe Baird, recipient of a 2010 MacArthur "genius" grant for reviving the language of her native tribe, is featured in Language of America.

There's a boggy area Downeast in Passamaquoddy territory — near the Canadian border — known to locals as "elomocokek." In English, the name is translated plainly as "swamp." In the Passamaquoddy language, the meaning is something more like, "the soft formless place extending away from me." It's an illustrative example of the differences and tensions between English and indigenous languages, the subject of Maine filmmaker Ben Levine's new documentary, Language of America: An Indian Story, which will screen on October 14 at SPACE Gallery.

"One problem with translation is that the native meaning is often changed by the outsider to fit their worldview and needs," says the narrator of Language of America. What gets lost? Nothing less than the speaker's relationship to his or her environment, the community's connection with nature, and the equilibrium struck by natives between humans and the natural world around them — losses that represent even more egregious wrongs.

Levine spent six years — years he describes as some of "the most challenging and exciting times of my life" — interviewing Passamaquoddy, Narragansett, and Wampanoag Indians about how language (and its loss) colors their cultural past, present, and future. The result is a 78-minute documentary that's as much a loving portrait of a people as a linguistics lesson. In fact, Levine could have swapped some of the history-of-oppression stuff (worth knowing, but many viewers will have seen it before) with even more in-depth linguistic analysis that shows how deeply culture is connected to language — how if we don't understand how to communicate with them, we don't understand a people.

For Levine's subjects, the gradual decline of native language speakers symbolizes the ways in which tribes have been subjugated, forced to assimilate, and robbed of their land, their ability to be self-sustaining, and their heritage. Or, as Levine puts it, the "systematic effort to destroy the Passamaquoddy culture as an indigenous, aboriginal way of being."

But there are attempts to revive the language, and these endeavors clearly stand in for more general attempts to re-assert native culture in the modern world. Attempts like that of Allen Sockabasin and his wife, who want Passamaquoddy to be their son's first language (Sockabasin will also appear and perform music at the SPACE screening). Or the work of Jessie Littledoe Baird, a linguist from Mashpee, Massachusetts, who is interviewed for the film and just received a MacArthur "genius" grant for her work reclaiming and restoring the Wampanoag language of southeastern New England.

"Nothing that you know about English is going to apply to Wampanoag," she says. But bridging that gap provides a "diversity of philosophy and love that we cannot function without."

Language of America: An Indian Story + Q&A and discussion + musical performance | October 14 @ 7 pm | at SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St, Portland | $7 | 207.828.5600 |

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